Busted Halo
October 14th, 2008

Seductive, Reductive, Religulous

Bill Maher issues a “call to atheist arms” in his latest documentary


In May of 2002, the comic Bill Maher faced the studio audience of his long-running program Politically Incorrect for the first time since learning ABC was canceling the show. As he sometimes did, Maher began the episode of PI—an irreverent roundtable discussion on current affairs—with a short monologue.

Maher was no stranger to provocative comments. He stirred national controversy the previous fall by attributing greater cowardice to US military leadership than 9/11 hijackers. Once the network guillotine had fallen, however, it was as if the real Maher was finally loosed. He gave new meaning to his show’s title as he explained why he thought he’d been fired.

“Folks, let me sum it up for you,” he began. “I think religion is bad and drugs are good. I think America causes cancer, longevity is less important than fun, and young people should be discouraged from voting. I think stereotypes are true, abstinence is a perversion, Bush’s lies are worse than Clinton’s, and there is nothing sexy about being old or pregnant.”

“I think September 11th changed nothing, and if I had known the onset of war would add 100 points to George Bush’s IQ, I would have started one,” he continued. “I think pornography stops rape, I think AIDS ribbons are stupid and flag burning makes me feel patriotic. I think death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, I think people have too much self-esteem, and being drunk is funny.”

He wasn’t finished.

“I think children are not innocent, God doesn’t write books, and Jesus wasn’t a Republican. I am for Mad Cow Disease and against suing tobacco companies. I think girls hate each other, ‘no’ doesn’t always mean ‘no,’ you have to lie to stay married, women’s sports are boring, and the Olympics are gay.”

His virtuosic act of provocation is worth reprinting here, because nothing has so condensed the essence of Maher. He sounded as if he believed every acidic word, and his unblinking delivery suffused the self-aggrandizing rant with both humor and horror. It’s hard to imagine anybody who wouldn’t take some part of it personally.

Real Time
In the years since leaving ABC, Bill Maher’s career has been a continuation of his Politically Incorrect valediction. As an author, commentator, and now host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher (sort of like PI, but with more swear words and fewer B-list celebrities), he has ratcheted up his rhetoric on the topics that raise his hackles: the Bush presidency, political correctness itself, and above all, religious beliefs.

Maher is outspoken in his contempt for all of religion’s manifestations, but he saves a special place in his bile duct for the Catholic Church in which he was raised. Whether it was calling Benedict XVI a Nazi or the clergy the “Bear Stearns of organized pedophilia,” it’s no stretch to suggest Maher has caused more of Bill Donohue’s reflexive, Catholic League umbrage-taking this decade than anybody on earth.

The name of Maher’s latest strident venture into the debate over faith and its role in people’s lives is Religulous. Opening this week, and directed by Larry Charles of Borat and Seinfeld fame, it’s an op-ed in the same vein as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Michael Moore’s Sicko or Ben Stein’s Expelled from earlier this year (an increasingly ubiquitous genre which I’d describe as “man with recognizable face has strong opinion, makes documentary”).

The film begins with Maher standing among the ruins of Meggido in Israel, where the book of Revelations forecasts the End of Days to occur—one of a series of crazy religious sentiments that, Maher says, baffle him to no end. Maher explains his own credo is uncertainty.

“Doubt is my product,” he says. He resolves to understand better what, in contrast, makes believers tick with such superstitious assurance.

Formulaic and Funny
“I have to find out,” Maher says. “I have to try.”

With this, he sets off, and anyone who’s seen a popular documentary in the past seven years can predict how things proceed. Maher will traverse the globe, converse with supportive talking heads, and play “gotcha” with some not-so-supportive ones. He and Charles will splice in some old film clips and rock songs for ironic seasoning. He’ll feign ignorance, or curiosity, and after about ninety minutes, he’ll act as if he’s settled a complicated question.

Religulous follows all of these conventions. Yet, the funny thing about Religulous is that it manages to be funny, and in the process break the mold a time or two. On the whole, this theistic reviewer even managed to enjoy himself.

For all of his bullish contrarianism, Bill Maher has an undeniably keen wit, and for most of Religulous, he puts it to good use. He chuckles his way through tours of places where the sometimes absurd applications of faith are fully bared: the Kentucky Creationism museum, where cavemen gambol alongside animatronic brontosaurs; the Israeli Institute for Science and Halachah, where brilliant scientists spend their time devising Rube Goldberg contraptions to help people circumvent Sabbath laws.

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The Author : Greg Ruehlmann
Greg Ruehlmann writes on humorous, religious and cultural topics in publications including McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Morning News, Busted Halo, National Catholic Reporter and National Lampoon.
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  • Phil

    “Sensibility”..”Let’s be ‘reasonable'”. I’m not saying fr. Coyne sold-out or know what his thinking is, but there’s no proof that the Big Bang and millions of years have passed since Earth began. It also need not be that that is the opposite of a 6 24 hour day creation either. Still, we have more proof for the latter being the Bible is inerrant, whereas the former is made up.

    As Anne Coulter has it in her book title, liberalism is a religion that is all about anything but God as king of the Earth and its inhabitants. The liberals will even believe in man coming from aliens. The Politically incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism has all the lies we buy about global warming (the descendent of liberalism’s godless eugenic past and its genocidal legacy). Somewhere, in that timeline, Piltdown Man (“discovered” by some, amongst whom was a Jesuit) was also accepted by “Big science” without the scientific method (and we are said not to care about science?!). All this–and those who rely more on the Bible than the just-so stories of the godless are the crazy ones? If anything, genocide has been done in the name of religion and irreligion. It all comes down to charity.

    That an intelligent comedian has come to making this movie only proves his denial of the hypocrisy of his irreligious patronage as well as his being sophmoric–or it just may be he’s a fellow traveler. The persecution of the “reasonable” ones done to those with another viewpoint, as illustrated in “Expelled”, is the hypocrisy of those who complained when “Big religion” did the same to them. Religion does not need a deity and so liberalism can be called a religion–one that has won over religious [who probably are ashamed of their religion’s teachings (as the Japanese guy in Western clothes in Jet Li’s “Fearless” wants the German to win over the “Sick man of Asia”), despite the fact the irreligious cannot test anything empirical regarding their claims about the origin of life, for example) and irreligious alike, who want to feel smart and reasonable before a modern(ist) society and “beat” the freaks in these times. There’s been a turf war, started by the Freemasons, picked on the Catholic Church, as that is Satan’s enemy, and I believe once light-hearted comedians of the ’80s endeared us to them only to play us along with their flutes that “tickle the ears” like the Pied Piper. At the end, following their illogic, thinking it wisdom, we’ll be put in a dark place like the boys who became donkeys in Pinnochio, but thank goodness we we’ll be “reasonable”.

    I think I’ll go check out that Kentucky Creationist Museum someday. It may not be accurate, but it’s at least backed by something inerrant and eternal (unlike man from Mars aliens, Piltdown Man and manmade global warming the “reasonable” ones of “Big Science” have given us) and the Church has no official say about it being definitely otherwise. If these are just-so stories too, at least they will be closer to fact and you probably won’t vote for eugenic mass-murderers bent on getting rid of “useless eaters” and the “feeble-minded” or crucifying their careers for having a different understanding of science or giving them Soviet-esque psychological counseling. That truly is religulous.

    check out audiosancto.org sermons related to this. The priest talking about it was trained as a scientist in this area. There’s also Jack Cashill’s “The Triumph of Design” (neither know me well so they may not approve of this message).

  • Domingo

    Great review!! Just one word I didn’t like: implication. Implication means logical inference. Juxtaposing sensible religion with images of missiles is something much less–it’s specious insinuation.

  • nora

    Greg- great review. I do find Bill Maher wickedly funny (and have often suspected him of being a recovering Catholic). I plan to see the film eventually but I feel like I’ve mostly heard this argument before and found that while many of the criticisms are deserved–there IS an awful lot of ridiculous religion flying around after all, especially of late–as you’ve pointed out, the conclusions are extreme.

  • Bill

    This is exactly the thing I would expect from Maher. He has made a career out of being intolerant of any ones views or plight, afterall he once equated retarded children to animals. I never have found him witty, let alone funny, and I wouldn’t spend the money on this film.

  • John Roach

    Thanks for the excellent review. I haven’t seen this film yet, but I heard Maher and Charles interviewed on NPR. I’ve always liked Maher for his intelligent and witty P. Incorrectness, and was rather saddened by his apparent decision in making this film to just ignore all of the light that “good” religion brought to the world, by focusing solely on the very real darkness that (fundamentalist) religion of all stripes breeds.

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